Regional Roma Initiative
With approximately 10 million living in Central and Eastern Europe, Roma are the region’s largest ethnic minority. Yet they are routinely denied basic rights and access to education, healthcare and security. Many live in abject poverty. In addition to dire economic conditions, anti-Roma protests and vigilante violence have escalated. Many Roma children are improperly designated as “special needs” students and placed in remedial schools, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and exclusion. Public policy responses at the state and European Union (EU) levels are marginally effective.
To redress their problems and assert their human rights, Roma themselves must drive change through the political process, as candidates to elected office, as advocates petitioning the government, and as watchdogs monitoring the work of police, employers, healthcare providers and others. Political parties, parliaments and civic organizations must also engage Roma on their issues and incorporate Roma into their ranks.
NDI’s regional Roma initiative launched in 2004 with the premise that, if Roma gain political clout, government responsiveness to Roma-related issues will follow. NDI’s initiative operates in Bulgaria, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. The Institute has worked with more than 1,000 Roma activists, in capital cities as well as at the village-level, providing training and guidance in civic education, political activism and election campaigning. Roma are entering politics by joining mainstream political parties; undertaking grassroots and national advocacy campaigns to secure their human rights and change public attitudes; and sitting in elected chambers to steer public policy toward pro-Roma outcomes.
The initiative has witnessed many “firsts”:
- NDI alumnus Peter Pollak became the first Roma member of the Slovak parliament in 2012. While in office, Pollak has proposed reforms to improve conditions for Roma, including legalization of land under Roma settlements and the establishment of health mediators in segregated settlements.
- Roma and non-Roma youth in small towns in Hungary and Slovakia formed youth clubs, tutored at-risk students, and organized festivals and sporting events, demonstrating cross-ethnic cooperation and learning that they can influence how their communities adapt to diversity.
- Mainstream political parties have created special departments to increase outreach to Roma, such as the Romanian National Liberal Party’s Office for the Analysis of the Situation of Roma.
- Roma elected officials and civic activists have used their respective positions to advocate for improved conditions in their communities. Their efforts have resulted in the establishment of computer centers in Romania; the adoption of a national action plan for the improvement of the status of Roma in Serbia; and the creation of parliamentary working groups to assess Roma access to healthcare and education in Macedonia.
The initiative is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Department of State.
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